Kristen Gillespie is currently reporting from Beirut on an upcoming signature series about life in Lebanon. She recounts life on Hamra Street in Beirut, where cafes and eclectic storefronts mask the past scenes of violent fighting.
Hamra Street in Beirut, Lebanon is a random mix of sleek cafes and sketchy nighttime establishments with names like “Tico tico” and “Goldfinger.” It is also the home of Bread Republic, part of the international Slow Food movement, and Café Younes, one of Beirut’s oldest cafes that still prepares its beans in the original roaster from 1935.
The past two years have brought new life to a once-desolate Hamra Street. Restaurants, cafes and lounges are opening, and in a city where the short term can bring just about anything, it is a much-needed sign of confidence that the future will be better than the past.
For a country known more for being politically and socially divided along religious lines, Hamra Street is something of a refuge from the unrelenting sectarianism that haunts Lebanon’s past, present and future.
In the past four decades, the fighting has also swept over the street. It was occupied by Yasser Arafat’s forces, Israel’s army, pro-Syrian factions and Hezbollah, in addition to countless other militias. But Hamra, ultimately, has never belonged to one group, and it is that freewheeling spirit that makes it what Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut calls “the last, great cosmopolitan neighborhood in the Arab world.”
Nearby, a woman from the Arabian Gulf, dressed in head-to-toe black, looks at the risque lingerie in a shop window. A little further up Hamra Street, readers have their choice of well-stocked bookstores, which confidently present their wares in Arabic, French and English. While a café sits on nearly every block, international coffee chains along Hamra threaten the famous café culture of the neighborhood.
Young shoeshine boys wander the street to attract clients, and then set up their portable shoe-polish stand, squatting on the sidewalk, furiously rubbing in the polish with their hands for a small tip. Maher, the host of the tiny Abu Hassan restaurant specializing in grilled meats just past Hamra Street, expounds on why he became a vegetarian as he serves picture-perfect salads and other Lebanese dishes at this shabby hidden gem. Cab drivers shove each other while yelling about some sort of internal turf war. Traffic jams up along the two-lane street, and frustrated drivers honk into oblivion, all to no effect.
– Kristen Gillespie